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In New Program, Horses Help Adults With Disabilities

Zach Wood, a participant in the Therapeutic Equine Assistance Method program, rides
on a horse May 13, on the grounds of the First Presbyterian Church in Oak Hill, Tenn.
(Photo: Catholic News Service/Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register)

By Theresa Laurence

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Catholic News Service) – Educator and riding instructor Curt Stacy, wearing a silver and gold crucifix around his neck and a smile on his face, stands in the middle of a dusty horse ring and calls out instructions to two riders, affirming the young men as they carefully follow his directions.

He’s exactly where he has always wanted to be, combining his love of working with people with disabilities and horseback riding.

Stacy, a Catholic, has been involved with horses since he was a young boy growing up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley; he has worked on ranches and as a trail ride leader. He’s also an educator of children and adults with disabilities and holds a master’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University in horse science.

As part of his thesis, Stacy designed a business plan to open a therapeutic horseback riding program. Since last summer, he has been busy putting that plan into action, building a new program in Nashville. In partnership with First Presbyterian Church in Oak Hill, he recently launched the Therapeutic Equine Assistance Method program as an ecumenical outreach ministry to serve adults with disabilities and veterans.

The vision of the program is “to enhance the quality of life for individuals with disabilities by serving them through a therapeutic horseback riding outreach program in a caring, Christian atmosphere.”

“We wanted to cater specifically to adults,” Stacy said, since he saw a lack of similar programs in the area for adults. Saddle Up, based in Franklin, Tennessee, is a therapeutic riding program that serves children ages 4-18, but once they age out of it, they don’t have a natural “next step” to continue with a therapeutic horseback riding program.

“We’re new here and it’s a struggle to find age-appropriate things,” said Lisanne Palacios, mother of Kenton, 29, who has developmental disabilities and lives with his parents. The Palacios recently moved to Nashville from out of state and are still trying to find activities for Kenton. “There’s still such a need for it,” Lisanne told the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper.

The Palacios were thrilled to find Stacy’s program and they plan to sign Kenton up for the next session. “It gives him such pride” to take care of and ride a horse. “We get him on a horse whenever we can.”

Therapeutic horseback riding can benefit children and adults with a range of disabilities and mental health issues by addressing physical, cognitive and social-emotional issues, Stacy said.

Getting on a horse and riding “can help with increased balance and muscle control,” and caring for a horse can help with “concentration, focus and bonding issues.” It also can be particularly beneficial to adults with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, who have trouble focusing and following instructions needed to engage in complex activities.

Stacy also led the first therapeutic horseback riding program for veterans in June. If a veteran has post-traumatic stress disorder, anger issues or is having trouble reconnecting with family after serving overseas, “building trust with a horse can help build trust with family members,” Stacy said.

Leah Wood said her 24-year-old son Zach has loved horses since he a young boy but before joining Stacy’s program, he hadn’t ridden them in seven years. She said riding “gives him a sense of accomplishment and relaxes him.”

“We feel very blessed with Curt and his passion for animals and people with disabilities,” she said.

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